“I owe you some pain,” barks the heavy to hero in one of the memorable lines in this classy thriller with surprisingly contemporary overtones. Underlying this tale of amnesiac David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) recovering his memory are themes of personal commitment, commitment to cause (“if you’re not committed to anything you’re just taking up space”), of individuals taking a stand against powerful forces seeking to thwart democracy, and of malevolent pandemic, the oldest of them all, greed, that infects even the most philanthropic enterprises.
The structure is brilliant. To every question David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) asks in trying to establish his identity, the answers are mystifying. He doubts his sanity and is plunged into a life-threatening conspiracy.
The film opens superbly. The camera pans across a New York skyline at night, every skyscraper lit up. Suddenly, one of the buildings goes dark. Cut to confusion inside as workers deal with the electricity cut-out. Among them Stillwell who is surprised to meet a woman on the stairs, Shela (Diane Baker), who not only recognizes him but seems to know a lot about him that is unfamiliar to him. They end up in the fourth level of the basement and on leaving discover that Charles Colvin (Walter Abel), a name that’s only vaguely familiar to Stilwell, has committed suicide by jumping from the building.
When he gets home to his apartment he is accosted by gunman Lester (Jack Weston) who tells him “The Major” wants to see him. Stillwell escapes but on reporting the incident to the police can’t remember his date of birth. After his amnesia being rejected by a psychiatrist he turns to private eye Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau) who takes up the case. But in Stillwell’s apartment a fridge he recalls as being empty is now full, the same with a dispatch case, the opposite with a closet, and in the building where he thinks he works there is now a wall where his office should be.
Stillwell believes he was employed as a cost accountant without a notion what that job entails. The basement has no fourth level. Another gunman Willard (George Kennedy) is also in pursuit. Corpses pop up with increasing regularity. To add to the mystery, nobody actually wants him dead. He is too valuable alive. He has a secret only he doesn’t know what. The police connect him to the suicide.
And so the movie plays out brilliantly, with the audience only knowing what Stillwell knows, as confused as he, until piece by piece the jigsaw comes together although at times with cunning sleight-of-hand the pieces are the wrong shape or, worse, don’t fit the jigsaw in hand. There’s an emotional jigsaw to be put back together too, one that requires proper commitment, Shela’s “togetherness is not enough” could have been a mantra for today’s generation.
All the time Shela bobs in and out, hard to tell whether she is a victim or conspirator, whether to be trusted or merit suspicion, and she has an interesting philosophy of her own in terms of the trapped and caged.
As in the best thrillers we have been given the clues all the time, just not realized them for what they were, and in a series of brilliant scenes you cannot help but applaud the entire mystery is carefully stitched together. You will never in a million years guess the cause of Colvin’s mysterious death.
The ending is satisfying on a variety of levels. Yes, mystery solved, the secret Stillwell holds a good one, but the climax involves characters taking sides, displaying commitment, challenging their consciences, circumstances reflecting very much the world in which we find ourselves now.
One of the beauties of the movie is how it plays with our expectations. Peck has done amnesia before in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) but since then his screen persona has been men of upstanding character, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) the personification, confusion not a trait readily identified with him. Equally, the heavies look anything but, Jack Weston small and rotund, George Kennedy bespectacled and slim.
Diane Baker, enigmatic throughout, far from the glamorous thriller female lead (think Audrey Hepburn in Charade or Sophia Loren who partnered Peck on Arabesque or Claudia Cardinale in Blindfold), describes herself as a “lonely woman with a low opinion of herself due to many mistakes.” In the middle of the high tension, with Stillwell being pursued by cops, there is a wonderful scene where a little girl lets him hide in her apartment and on making him coffee it turns out to be the pretend coffee little girls make.
Gregory Peck (Arabesque, 1966) is superb, his face absorbing shock at his condition, at once welcoming unravelling mystery at the same time as doubting its source, wending his way through a past he cannot believe is true, a personality that occasionally appears abhorrent, and having to make the same decisions that he feared making in the past. Diane Baker (Marnie, 1964) has a difficult role, introspective where most heroines in this kind of film are more voluble, and frightened of her own vulnerability.
You can see from here how much George Kennedy bulked up for his breakthrough movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). Walter Matthau, too, was a stage away from interesting supporting roles to full-blown star in The Fortune Cookie (1966). Jack Weston might have been rehearsing his role as the stalker in Wait until Dark (1967). I am not going to mention the other sterling supporting players since that will give the game away.
Veteran director Edward Dymytryk (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is on song, stringing the audience along beautifully, extracting wonderful performances, not frightened to give the film deeper meaning. The theme of commitment, of standing up to malevolent forces, seems an odd one for a straightforward thriller but it reflected Dmytryk’s experience as a victim of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s.
On the debit side, I can’t see any reason why this was made in black-and-white and it certainly served to put off the public, the film’s box office poor, but I dispute the criticism of what appeared too-frequent flashbacks. Rather than re-emphasizing plot points for the audience, I saw this instead as Stillwell holding up a mirror to a memory he doubted he could trust.
Top-notch screenplay by Peter Stone who knows his way around this genre, having previously written Charade and with Arabesque round the corner, from the novel called Fallen Angel by ,surprisingly, given he is best known for Spartacus, Howard Fast under the pseudonym Walter Ericson. At least a dozen quotable lines included this cracker relating greed to a pandemic: “You’re a carrier, you infected him and he died from it.”
All told, an excellent thriller with modern resonance.
Oddly enough, Mirage was remade a couple of years later as Jigsaw (1968), directed by James Goldstone and starring Harry Guardino.
P.S. I see you that the “I owe you” line was adapted for use by Willow in the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV series. There’s even a link to that scene on YouTube. Glad to see it has found some kind of immortality. It’s the kind of line that should be a gimme for t-shirt manufacturers.